Uncomfortable makes a compelling case that following Jesus calls us to embrace the more difficult aspects of Christianity in the context of the local church.
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About the Author
Brett McCracken is a senior editor for the Gospel Coalition and the author of Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters. He also writes regularly for Christianity Today and his website, BrettMcCracken.com. He lives with his wife in Southern California where he serves as an elder at Southlands Church.
Read an Excerpt
Embrace the Discomfort
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
We must put away our convenient notions of God — the one who always agrees with us, the one who always favors our nation or political agenda, the one who feeds us candy and never vegetables.
There was at least a four-year gap between when I prayed to ask Jesus to be my Savior, and when I publicly confessed him as such in my church and asked to be baptized. That's how much of an introvert I am.
It was one thing to pray to Jesus in private; quite another to go forward during an altar call. For a shy kid, the latter was terrifying: standing up, stepping out of the pew, walking up that intimidating aisle, finding the right words to say to the pastor who wore cowboy boots with his suits. The thought of doing it made me sweat. Literally.
For years I dreaded the invitation time of the Sunday services of our little Baptist church in Oklahoma. During the inevitable one or two verses of "Just as I Am" or "Softly and Tenderly," when the pastor beckoned anyone to come forward who felt convicted to "confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9; this verse terrified me), I sat in turmoil, clearly convicted but unwilling to take the uncomfortable step. I often felt sick to my stomach during these moments of the church service (and not just because of the mayonnaise-based casseroles that dominated our church's potlucks). This went on for years. After one particularly nerve-wracking Sunday night service (I'm sure the sermon was out of Revelation), I actually ran to the church bathroom and threw up.
When at age ten I finally moved from my seat to go forward during the altar call, it was indeed uncomfortable. I remember tapping my dad's shoulder and whispering to him that I wanted to go forward, but would he walk up there with me? He did. I told the pastor I'd asked Jesus to be my Savior and wanted to be baptized. My decision was announced to the congregation and a few weeks later I was awkwardly dunked in lukewarm water. All of it was uncomfortable, but not nearly as bad as my worrying mind had imagined. And thanks be to God, my altar call stomachaches ended that day, once and for all.
The "God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3) filled me with a newfound peace at that moment, but it was by no means the end of discomfort on my Jesus-following journey. There have been, and continue to be, aspects of Christianity that make me uncomfortable. Most of them have to do with living out the faith in the way Jesus mandated: not as individuals but as a fellowship — as the church. And church is hard.
Here are just a few of the things that have proven awkward and/or uncomfortable for me in my three decades of church-going life:
Praying aloud in public — introverts reading this will understand
Speaking on stage or from any sort of podium, for any reason
That moment in a worship song when everyone is sitting and then as the song builds to a climax, people start popping up around you and you feel pressured to stand up too
That moment in a small group or church meeting when the leader asks if someone will close in prayer, everyone avoids eye contact and you just KNOW he will call on you
The meet-and-greet portion of church where small talk with strangers is encouraged
Men's ministry activities involving sports, meat, and people who call you "boss"
Door-to-door or street evangelism (or any sort of evangelism really)
Holding sweaty hands with strangers during a prayer circle time that never seems to end
There is more I could list, of course, but as much as it makes me cringe to think of it all, it also fills me with joy. For it is on account of the uncomfortable, the awkward, the difficult, and the challenging that I have grown. This is as true for life in general as it is for the life of faith.
If I had never taken the awkward and vulnerable step of asking Kira on that first date to the local Thai restaurant in 2010, and if I hadn't then been OK that she needed time (six months!) before she was really ready to start dating, she would not be my wife today.
If every day Kira and I shut our doors and kept our home a quiet haven of solitude (my preference), we would miss out on the benefits of living hospitably and learning from the beautiful souls who sit at our table and on our couches each week.
If I had listened to my introverted instincts every time I was offered a public speaking opportunity or a teaching gig, I would have missed out on amazing opportunities to share, shape, and engage hundreds of people.
We grow most when we are outside of our comfort zones.
We are more effective when we are on the edge of risk.
We hold beliefs more dear and pursue goals more passionately when they are accompanied by a cost.
This is why I believe Christians ought to embrace, rather than avoid, the necessity of grounding their faith in a local church context, however uncomfortable, awkward, and frustrating it may be.
And it's why I believe churches ought to embrace, rather than avoid, the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity if they are to thrive in the twenty-first century.
There is a reverse correlation between the comfortability of Christianity and its vibrancy. When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong.
I believe the latter is how she was meant to be.
The Dying Away of Cultural Christianity
The number of people in the US who call themselves Christians is shrinking. And that's a good thing.
Every few years, new data shows an ongoing decline of Americans who identify as Christians and an ongoing rise in those who identify as religiously unaffiliated ("the nones"). Yet headlines announcing the death of American Christianity are misleading and premature.
"Christianity isn't collapsing; it's being clarified," wrote Ed Stetzer in 2015 following the release of Pew Research data showing the Christian share of the American population declined almost eight percentage points from 2007 to 2014. Stetzer points out that the surge in "nones" is because nominal Christians are giving up the pretense of faith while convictional Christians remain committed.
For most of US history, to be American was to be "Christian." National identity was conflated with religious identity in a way that produced a distorted form of Christianity, mostly about family values, Golden Rule moralism, and good citizenship. The God of this "Christianity" was first and foremost a nice guy who rewarded moral living by sanctifying the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., a substantial 401(k), a three-car garage, and as many Instagram followers as possible). This form of Christianity — prominent in twenty-first-century America — has been aptly labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a faith defined by a distant, "cosmic ATM" God who only cares that we are nice to one another and feel good about ourselves.
This faux God — stripped of theological and historical specificity and closer to Santa Claus than Yahweh — began to flourish amidst the gradual "death of God" narrative advanced by philosophical, literary, artistic, and scientific elites from the Enlightenment to postmodernity. In this context, mainstream Christianity became less about truly believing in God and supernatural events like the incarnation and resurrection; it became more about the rites and rituals of Christianity-flavored morality: a convenient, comfortable, quaint system of personal and societal uplift. Thankfully, and predictably, this sort of toothless, "nice," good-citizen Christianity is on the decline. Why? As Terry Eagleton observes, it's because Christianity is fundamentally disruptive rather than conciliatory to polite society and powers-that-be:
The form of life Jesus offers his followers is not one of social integration but a scandal to the priestly and political establishment. It is a question of being homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, celibate, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, averse to material possessions, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.
What we are seeing in American Christianity is a healthy pruning away of the mutant and neutered forms of it that are easily abandoned when they become culturally inconvenient or unfashionable. As Russell Moore observes, "A Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That's because it's, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain." Rather than being a cause for alarm, the dying-away of cultural Christianity should be seen as an opportunity. It used to be too easy to be a Christian in America; so easy that one could adopt the label simply by being born in this "Christian nation" and going to church once or twice a year (if that), in between relentless attempts to swindle the stock market, accumulate beach properties, and build an empire of wealth and acclaim.
To be sure, and especially in contrast to much of the rest of the world, it's still easy to be a Christian in America. But it is becoming less easy and certainly less normal. And that's a good thing. Christianity, founded on belief in the supernatural resurrection of a first-century Jewish carpenter, has been and always will be abnormal. Again, Russell Moore:
The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20–22).
Following Christ is not one's golden ticket to a white-picket-fence American dream. It's an invitation to die, to pick up a cross. Christians are those who give themselves away in love and sacrifice to advance a kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36).
As C. S. Lewis writes: "I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."
Christianity Should Be Uncomfortable
In the face of growing secularization and the decline of cultural/nominal Christianity in the West, the Christianity that will survive will be the kind that doesn't shrink from discomfort or apologize for the increasingly countercultural things it calls people to believe and do.
At a time when young Americans are ever less familiar with Jesus and the Christian gospel, and the spiritual-but-not-religious mantra is ever more proliferate, this sort of real Christianity will be clearer and more urgent. The Western world doesn't need a more muddled, confused, "I love Jesus but not the church" Christianity made up of a million different opinions and to-each-his-own permutations. Rather, it needs a true, unified, and eloquent witness to the distinctly alternative vision for life that Jesus offers. And this will only come with a renewed commitment to the local church in all of its uncomfortable but life-giving glory.
Nominal Christianity and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism will gradually die off. We should expedite their passing. One way we can do this is by rallying around the true, costly pursuit of Christ as believers committed to the imperfect but essential local church. Not only will this help distinguish true from almost Christianity, but it will renew and revive our churches. It will result in a stronger, more sustainable, more identifiable (and I think more united) Christianity. It will make congregations more mature and effective, because those who remain will be all-in, committed, and invested.
Anyone who has ever grown in a skill — a sport, an art form, a job — knows that growth doesn't come by way of comfort. Growth happens when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and allow our confidence and assumptions to be shaken. Those unwilling to stay the uncomfortable course simply quit. These people are not the ones who win medals or create art of lasting significance. They are not the ones who build the church. No, the builders and changers of this world are the ones who put their comfort aside for the sake of something greater.
Giving up "Dream Church" and Embracing Discomfort
The "dream church" picture I painted in the introduction looks very little like the church, Southlands, where I am now a member.
Southlands is nondenominational, meets in a renovated prosthetics factory, and has only the slightest liturgical bent. It's Reformed-ish but Holy Spirit focused, with impromptu "words" from the congregation and quiet prayer in tongues a common occasion. The music is relentlessly loud. To be honest the worship services often make me quite uncomfortable.
And I'm OK with that. I love my church.
Talking about one's personal "dream church" is an exercise in not only futility but flat-out gospel denial. The church does not exist to meet our "comfort zone" preferences but rather to destabilize them, to jostle us awake from the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship that impedes our growth.
Attending my current church has been difficult and full of personal discomfort, but also probably the most spiritually enriching churchgoing season of my life. Nothing matures you quite like faithfulness amid discomfort.
For too long the consumer logic of Christian culture has been: Find a church that meets your needs! Find a church where the worship music moves you, the pastor's preaching compels you, and the homogenous community welcomes you! You, you, you!
But this model doesn't work. Not only is it coldly transactional (what have you done for me lately?) and devoid of covenantal commitment (consumerist church attendance is basically a celebrity marriage without a prenup), it's also anti-gospel. A true gospel community is not about convenience and comfort and chai lattes in the vestibule. It's about pushing each other forward in holiness and striving together for the kingdom, joining along in the ongoing work of the Spirit in this world. Those interested only in their comfort and happiness need not apply. Being the church is difficult.
The thing is, many young people today resonate with this. They're sick of being sold spiritual comfort food. They want to be part of something that has forward momentum and doesn't slow down so that a few fickle, FOMO ("fear of missing out") Millennials can decide whether or not they want to get on board. They want a community that is so compelled by the gospel and so confident in Christ that they pay little heed to target-demographics and CNN articles about what twentysomethings are saying today about their "dream church." As one popular book written by Christian Millennials suggests, there is "a growing movement of Christian young people who are rebelling against the low expectations of their culture by choosing to 'do hard things' for the glory of God."
College students I know are not interested in a church with a nice shiny college ministry. They want a church that is alive, bearing fruit, and making disciples. The young professionals in our life group do not meet week after week because hanging out with a diverse array of awkward personalities after a long day's work makes their lives easier. No. They come because there is growth when believers in community help each other look outside of themselves and to Jesus.
Looking outside of ourselves. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.
Excerpted from "Uncomfortable"
Copyright © 2017 Brett McCracken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Russell Moore, 11,
Introduction: My Dream Church, 15,
PART 1 UNCOMFORTABLE FAITH,
1 Embrace the Discomfort, 31,
2 The Uncomfortable Cross, 44,
3 Uncomfortable Holiness, 57,
4 Uncomfortable Truths, 69,
5 Uncomfortable Love, 83,
6 Uncomfortable Comforter, 95,
7 Uncomfortable Mission, 109,
PART 2 UNCOMFORTABLE CHURCH,
8 Uncomfortable People, 123,
9 Uncomfortable Diversity, 135,
10 Uncomfortable Worship, 145,
11 Uncomfortable Authority, 154,
12 Uncomfortable Unity, 164,
13 Uncomfortable Commitment, 174,
14 Countercultural Comfort, 186,
General Index, 203,
Scripture Index, 204,
What People are Saying About This
“As I read through Uncomfortable, I am strangely comforted. With all the talk about young Christians being disenchanted with the local church, it is refreshing to hear Brett McCracken, a Millennial, speak so affirmatively on her behalf. I am moved by Brett’s grown-up perspective in these pages, a perspective that champions the church as a family not a club, a sinner’s hospital not a social network, and a commitment not a consumer product. For any serious Christian, Brett’s words are a wake-up call to engageindeed, to love and devote ourselves tothis often messy, high-maintenance, painfully ordinary but also glorious, life-giving, and forever-beloved band of misfits that Jesus calls his wife. If Jesus has so tethered himself to the church, dare we untether ourselves from her? Thank you, Brett, for reminding us that Jesus and his wife come to us as a package deal. This book is a must-read.”
Scott Sauls,Senior Pastor, Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee; author, Jesus Outside the Lines; Befriend; and From Weakness to Strength
“In a generation of dissatisfied consumers hoping to find our perfectly customized Dream Church™, Brett McCracken is the herald of a counterintuitive gospel: ‘Take comfort! Church is supposed to be uncomfortable!’ That’s because McCracken knows it’s precisely in embracing the uncomfortable truths of the gospel and immersing ourselves in the uncomfortable unity-in-diversity of the body that we are transformed into the image of Christthe God who endured the discomfort of the cross to bring us resurrection life. In that sense, Uncomfortable is a sharp application of Christ’s perennial call to come and die to the particular temptations of the North American church. A helpful corrective and an ultimately hopeful invitation.”
Derek Rishmawy,blogger, Reformedish; cohost, Mere Fidelity podcast
“As an inhabitant of the Western world, I take comfort for granted, and I like it that way. I expect to wear comfortable clothes, sleep in a comfortable bed, and have comforting food in the refrigerator. All my cultural conditioning teaches me to expectand demandcomfort. Yet as a pastor and a disciple, I know that the demands of the gospel, while ultimately comforting, frequently are not comfortable. In this excellent book, Brett McCracken identifies and prods around many of the things that make Christian community uncomfortable: he had me itching and scratching! Brett demonstrates how rather than fleeing discomfort we need to lean into it, and in so doing find what is more deeply satisfying than the shallow comforts of our consumer age. I encourage you to read this book and embrace the itch!”
Matthew Hosier,Pastor, Gateway Church, Poole, United Kingdom; Contributor, thinktheology blog
“What if not only our answers but our questions are wrong? We think we know what we want, but as Brett McCracken explains with persuasive wit and wisdom, Jesus knows better. Uncomfortable is just the message we need to hear, especially right now.”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Justification (New Studies in Dogmatics)
“We live in a culture oriented entirely toward comfort, and the church is not immune from its lure. Brett McCracken offers a timely and needed reminder that the call for Christians is a different one, but one that brings blessings richer than mere comfort. Uncomfortable will make you uncomfortable in the best of ways. Every believer needs to read this book and heed its call.”
Karen Swallow Prior, author, On Reading Well and Fierce Convictions
“Americans are experts at avoiding the uncomfortablebe it awkward conversations, conflicted relationships, or lifestyle changes. But Jesus points us to a better way. In this book, McCracken shows us how the greatest glories for disciples of Jesus are often found in the most uncomfortable places his voice calls us and how the real church is not an idealized utopia beyond the fray of history, but rather Jesus powerfully present among his often muddled, messy, and awkwardyes, uncomfortablebands of followers today.”
Joshua Ryan Butler, Pastor, Imago Dei Community, Portland, Oregon; author, The Skeletons in God’s Closet and The Pursuing God
“Brett McCracken challenges us to face one of the greatest fears of contemporary culture: discomfort. Rather than retreating into a soothing world where everyone’s ‘just like me’ or embracing the distractions of technology and consumerism, Brett calls us to life in community with God’s people, where awkwardness, disappointment, and frustration are the norm. It’s in this way of lifeembracing the uncomfortablethat we’ll find the richest experience of God’s grace and the community our hearts truly desire. In a world where church is often just one more consumeristic choice, this is a much-needed book.”
Mike Cosper, Founder and Director, Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture
“Ahhhh, comfort. It’s the siren call to our human hearts, beckoning us to find, acquire, and maintain lives of ease. Such a bent, however, is incompatible with a vibrant Christian faith lived within a thriving Christian community. In Uncomfortable, Brett McCracken alerts us to the toxic ways comfort infects and hinders our faithand how God meets our heart’s desire for comfort in gloriously unexpected ways. McCracken urges us to seek something greater than comfort: true life and true faith in Christ, found just beyond the borders of our comfort zone.”
Erin Straza, author, Comfort Detox; Managing Editor, Christ and Pop Culture
“Anyone who looks closely at modern Christian life can see signs of the insidious self-centeredness by which we sinners are tempted to transform the gospel into something that suits our tastes and fits our plans. McCracken carries out that close examination; in fact, in this book he equips us to pursue that false comfort into all of its hiding places and root it out in Jesus’s name and for the sake of the gospel.”
Fred Sanders,Professor of Theology, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University; author, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything
“Sometimes church feels like an annoying family member you would rather see only at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We want a church that is cool and suits our tastes, not the frustrating institution that carries around the ‘shame of the cross.’ Brett’s smoothly written book has cast all the awkwardness of church into a new and meaningful light for me. Like a Puritan voice for the cool, anti-institutional, twenty-first-century Christian, Brett charges his readers to stay and commit to the church as Christ’s bride.”
Emily Belz, journalist, Worldmagazine
“In an anti-institutional age, many wandering souls are hungry for something bigger than themselves. Brett McCracken’s vision of the church points us to this reality, which is rarely what we expect and always what we need. Readers of diverse backgroundsand differing viewpointswill profit from considering these reflections. McCracken is a prophetic voice within the rising generation of evangelicalism, and I am thankful for his contribution.”
Owen Strachan, Associate Professor of Christian Theology, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; coauthor, The Grand Design; coeditor, Designed for Joy
“Uncomfortable dismantles some of our most-treasured hopes and dreams about what church could and should look like, revealing the pride and self-will that lurk beneath even the noblest of our ideals. It grounds us instead in what church really isa place where we are called to love our fellow sinners and be loved by them, acknowledging our shared sinfulness even while we challenge each other to leave it behind. For all who care about the church, this is invaluable reading.”
Gina Dalfonzo, author, One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church
“As C. S. Lewis reminded us, if we want a comfortable faith, we best not give ourselves to Jesus Christ. But if we want a faith grounded in ultimate reality, and one that matures and therefore ennobles us, then Jesus is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In this book, Brett McCracken not only ‘counts the cost’ of life in Christ, but also shows why this uncomfortable life is also the most blessed.”
Mark Galli, Editor in Chief, Christianity Today